February 17, 2015

Giving Gifts Abroad: Where Generosity meets Presumption.

giving hands

Traveling soon? Thinking of bringing candy for children, or wondering whether or not to give money to beggars? Remember this:

Gifts are always more complicated when differences in culture, race and social class enter into the equation.

A few weeks ago, I was riding a matatu (bus) down the Kenyan coast. A muzungu (foreigner) boarded several stops after. Hale and tan in the way that Northern Europeans tan—russet, rather than gold—he must have been around 70. His thick white hair and beard shone starkly amongst the row of shaved Kenyan skulls.

He sat by the door, and when we stopped to let off passengers, he held out a coin to a small boy a few yards away.

A man carried the boy over to accept the gift. As the matatu began to roll away, the white-bearded man shouted, “It’s for him [the boy]! Not you—him!”

Thus ensuring that his gift would not fall into other hands, he sat back, satisfied.

This foreigner bestowed his gift with the ease of frequent practice. His manner brought to mind other tourists I have seen in other places: self-satisfied, utterly confident in the righteousness of their charity, and a tad bit supercilious.

Simply put, something about the gift—or rather, its giving—bothered me.

Two years ago, far up in the Himalayan foothills, very small children would emerge from nowhere, holding out phantom hands and pleading eyes, asking my trekking companions and I for “Candy! Candy!” or, even more baffling, “Ball-oon. Ball-oon.”

From whence had come this peculiar fixation with candy and balloons? Well, from other trekkers, of course. Foreign hikers toting bags of candy—and balloons—to give to children along their path.

There is something presumptuous—maybe—about giving gifts to strangers in foreign places. An assumption that we as outsiders know what is needed, and by whom.

Western altruism in Africa has a long and problematic history of unsolicited giving, unscrupulous giving, and giving without once thinking to ask what is desired or needed by the recipients.

These sorts of giving smack of colonial condescension.

I don’t intend that to be an insult, so please don’t feel offended, and hear me out. Colonialism, and imperialism, divided the globe into masters and subjects. Owners and possessions. Powerful and powerless. Its legacy is stronger than any of us would like to admit, but refusing to examine these remnants will not make them go away.

How is giving an unsolicited gift the same as flouting one’s supremacy? It reinforces those bygone colonial paradigms, establishing the (usually white) foreigner as giver and decider, and the local child, or adult, as recipient and obedient.

It is a subtle subtext, but in my opinion undeniable.

Surely, we might argue, we don’t need to ask to know that a starving child needs food, or that a village with no well needs potable water. Yes, there are certain basic needs, but no, we can’t assume that we know best what they are and may thus dictate another’s priorities.

In some touristic destinations, poverty is rampant, and in advising visitors to these places, study abroad or travel guides will usually take one of three tracks:

1) Don’t give anything to anyone. Not to beggars, not to children, not even to new friends. Just don’t, because one friendly gesture of generosity will call upon your head a veritable surge of unanticipated requests.

2) Bring gifts that are useful—flashlights, notebooks, clothing—to give to hosts or friends. You will be offering something worthwhile, not a symbolic gesture doomed to sit on a shelf beside its untouched kin.

3) If you are going to give a stranger something, give them food. Children, especially, almost certainly need it, and your gift will not be misused or appropriated, as money so often is.

Other responses include: giving to a reputable non-profit, thus ensuring (in theory) that your money will be well spent; sponsoring an individual’s schooling; or offering skills or instruction which have no (or greater) monetary value.

All of these suggestions have merit. Personally, I prefer to support the work of grassroots organizations that work in tandem with local communities. I love the option of sharing food; I think it is the most human of acts, and almost universally understood and appreciated. Sharing skills—if you have them—equally so.

Material gifts are tricky. I once stayed with a family who had an entire shelf of unused gifts from other guests like me—picture books, snowglobes and salt water taffy, all untouched and unopened. I don’t know about the worth of gifts that serve no function beyond expressing gratitude for hospitality.

And then, even if you do ask a community what it is they want, you will not receive a unified answer. Children may indeed want bicycles and candy—and balloons. Male elders will not seek the same help as women, may have different priorities.

But if you want to help the “poor, starving children of Africa” (yes, this platitude still gets thrown around), don’t despair. Where there is intention and need, good things can be done. Do, however, leave your presumption, your condescension and your self-importance at the door, and try to be mindful in your giving.


Relephant Read:

Sharing From the Heart: Why I Stopped Giving Sign Holders Spare Change

Author: Toby Israel

Editor: Emily Bartran 

Photo: Flickr

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